Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

As Cornell students face early move-outs and online classes, an open letter calls for rent forgiveness and more.

March 23, 2020

Crisis Calls For Desperate Measures: Activists Push for Emergency Fund, University Adds Sick Days

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In an open letter sent to the presidents of Cornell University, Ithaca College and Cayuga Medical Center, a network of community organizers and activist groups called for greater support in the form of various emergency aid measures.

Organizers had three demands of the major, community institutions: Rent and utility payment forgiveness from Cornell, Cayuga Medical Center, and other major landlords, and the creation of an emergency fund for the county to be administered by local officials and community groups.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented threat to humanity, and our response must meet the scope of this crisis,” wrote the organizers, who expressed particular concern for low-paid and undocumented workers that they fear will fall through the cracks of a federal or state relief plan.

The groups signing the letter included organizers from Black Lives Matter, the Tompkins County Workers Center, Ithaca Tenants Union and the Cornell Graduate Students United Steering Committee. Multiple Cornell professors and students also signed onto the letter.

The proposed emergency fund would be administered by the county government and potentially other community organizations. It is meant to pay for emergency paid leave for all workers, as well as support food banks, caregivers, household expenses and mental and physical healthcare, according to the letter.

In the press release, organizers wrote that “the economy of Tompkins County depends on transactions between these businesses and community members. Without revenue from students and visitors, small businesses are being forced to lay off or cut the hours of local retail and service industry workers, increasing pressure on employees who do not receive paid leave.”

Liel Sterling ’21, president of the Ithaca’s Tenant Union, said “I do think [a rent freeze] is feasible right now. Things we viewed as not feasible before this crisis are becoming feasible as it becomes necessary for different parts of the community to show solidarity with each other.”

Sterling worried about the possible impact of not acting quickly enough, with the effects of COVID-19 already being felt by the Ithaca economy.

“We are already seeing the impact on this community. People have already lost their jobs, and businesses are in crisis,” Sterling said.

The Ithaca Voice has compiled a list of ways to support local businesses through COVID-19, to minimize the financial damage of business closures.

Even though thousands have left campus, Sterling said that Cornell students have a responsibility to stand by long-time Ithaca residents in this time of crisis.

“It is time for Cornell students to show solidarity with Ithaca residents at this time. We are not just coming to stay for four years and not engaging at all,” Sterling said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that we become a part of the community, we contribute to these businesses, our presence has an impact on people who spend their lives in Ithaca.”

While it has not offered to create or contribute to a county-wide emergency fund so far, Cornell has offered some assistance to its own current employees as a result of COVID-19.

According to the Cornell website, the University has given 10 extra Health and Personal days to each full-time employee, prorated for part time employees, and employees have been allowed more flexibility for how these days will be used.

“Because some K-12 schools have begun to close for short periods of time, we are permitting the use of Health and Personal (HAP) leave for staff to use for childcare even though their child is not sick,” wrote the University on its website.

Although parts of campus have remained open for students who were not able to return home, the possibility of a full University closure remains, which would both displace students who have applied to stay and University employees.

“Because this is a rapidly changing situation, Cornell is prepared to enact a range of preventative measures based on guidance from state and local health officials, including a partial or full closure of campus if necessary to protect public health,” according to Cornell.

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 is calling for radical solutions of his own. In a tweet, he called for a universal basic income — an idea, that in the past week, has gained the surprising support of Congressional Republicans.

“Now is the time for a universal basic income — checks directly to every household for two or three months. This challenge is unprecedented. The response should be too,” Myrick tweeted.